Welcome to the second edition of Red River College’s Inventory of College Applied Research Expertise Researcher Spotlight where we share stories about the researchers that are available to help you solve problems and innovate.
You don’t meet too many chemists who went from propelling rockets to performing applied research on water, but such has been the trajectory of Red River College’s Michael Judge.
Before becoming an instructor at the College six years ago, Judge was the senior chemist for a decade at Manitoba’s Bristol Aerospace Rockwood Propellant Plant. This post saw him formulating the propellant for the Black Brant Rocket, whose incarnations since its inception in the 1960s have been hallmarks of Canadian aerospace technology – NASA and the Canadian Space Agency have constantly had them in their employ.
While you could say that Judge’s current work in chemistry is a bit more grounded (pun intended), it is arguably more important as his past two applied research projects are concerned with earth’s most vital resource: water.
Removing pharmaceuticals from water
For the past year at the College, Judge has been performing applied research that could potentially reduce insidious pollutants entering Manitoba’s lakes and rivers.
“There are a lot of concerns right now with nano-pollutants that end up in our waterways,” said Judge.
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“The idea is that someone takes an anti-depressant or birth control pill or any number other pharmaceutical whose active ingredients eventually get excreted from the body. These chemical substances are not fully metabolized by the body, so a lot of those ingredients go right into the sewer system and end up in our wastewater treatment processes.
And while wastewater treatments are designed to remove certain things that we don’t want going into the river, they aren’t designed to remove these nano-pollutants,” Judge continued.
Research done in this field, like those at Northwestern Ontario’s Experimental Lakes Area (ELA), have indicated that nano-pollutants, including surfactants found in detergents, antibacterials in hand soaps, psychoactive ingredients from pharmaceuticals, and estrogen from “the pill”, can bioaccumulate over time in species that live in these waters – and thereby make their way up the food chain.
“One of the main problems is that a lot of these compounds are what are known as endocrine disruptors; they mimic the actions of natural hormones and you tend to get odd things happening to various amphibians and fish like increased rates of cancer and changes in fertility and so forth,” said Judge.
“So there are concerns about long-term environmental consequences and about scenarios where this water may get repurposed as drinking water.”
To address this wastewater problem from our water treatment plants, Judge came up with a study to see if these nano-pollutants could be detected and removed.
After thoroughly exploring the literature on the subject, Judge and a summer student from the Chemical and Biosciences Technology diploma program decided on utilizing activated carbon (or charcoal) – which has a very high affinity for organic molecules – in lab-scale tests.
Using acetaminophen as a model nano-pollutant, Judge was able to confirm that finely powdered activated carbon could remove the compound. This was an encouraging start to the study and serves as an indication that the College has the ability to assess nano-pollutant removal on a lab-scale; an important first step in optimizing the process.
To further detect nano-pollutants in wastewater on a more precise scale, work was contracted out to the Richardson Centre for Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals to utilize their advanced high-performance liquid chromatograph (HPLC). HPLCs are common in labs around the world, being an essential piece of instrumentation used to separate components in a chemical mixture.
“In general, HPLCs use a solvent (a liquid chemical) that is pumped at high pressures through a column filled with a specially-designed packing,” said Judge. “As the mixture of chemicals moves through the column, certain chemicals will have more affinity – or more bonding strength – with the packing and so they are slowed down and, as they come out the other end, the chemicals are going to be separated.”
While Judge uses the College’s HPLCs on a regular basis, the ones at the Richardson Centre are more advanced, having been interfaced with mass spectrometers – an analytic device essential for detecting the minutest trace of chemicals.
“The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a method for testing for these compounds that uses a very advanced analytical instrument, where you have one of these liquid chromatographs interfaced with what is know as a mass spectrometer,” said Judge.
“The mass spectrometer essentially uses a stream of electrons to break molecules into little fragments, and then it looks at those fragments – so it can tell you exactly what chemical you have, and it can look at very low levels.
So through the Richardson Centre we were able to screen a variety of pollutants at very low levels, to establish that the technology exists in Winnipeg to do more advanced screening.”
Having now established the ability to detect trace amounts of nano-polluntants in wastewater, along with the utilization of active carbon in holding tanks as a successful filter, Judge is hopeful that more advanced research along these lines may be able to secure external funding in future; possibly from the City or Province, based on past expressions of interest in this topic regarding both Winnipeg’s wastewater and the state of Lake Winnipeg.
“What we concluded is there is a need here in Winnipeg and Manitoba to look at nanopollutants – there is a knowledge gap in that we are a little bit behind Europe and the United States where there is more of a concern and at the very least they are tracking things,” said Judge.
“So we’ve identified a gap. We’ve also identified the technology and the knowledge to screen for these substances, and we’ve demonstrated some lab-scale analysis of the most efficient removal methods.”
This applied research project was made possible due to funding from the College Applied Research Development (CARD) fund.
Making laboratory testing greener
Prior to this study, Judge had done another CARD funded project at the College that could very well make the world’s chemistry labs more environmentally friendly.
While HPLCs are excellent analytical instruments for chemical testing, they themselves produce a discharge that must be safely removed by a waste management company, due to the toxicity of the chemical solvents used to separate mixtures.
“One of the problems with HPLCs is that they need a constant flow of liquid solvent – and that solvent is usually something that is pretty toxic,” said Judge. “It’s common to use methanol, acetonitrile, and a number of other solvents. And what happens is this comes out the other end and you get a bunch of waste.
These solvents are basically a necessity to get good results from this kind of test, so the problem is we are creating this enormous waste stream; we have all these labs all over the world merrily pumping away and creating this, and you also have issues with vapors escaping and employees being exposed, so it would be beneficial if we could us a less-toxic solvent for that purpose.”
In 2010, Judge had been reading about the chemical ethyl lactate (EL), which a company was producing in a cost effective manner. Composed of lactic acid and ethanol, the chemical is fairly non-toxic, with a history of being used in food products and cosmetic formulations.
“Because ethyl lactate is formed from a combination of two non-toxic compounds, when it goes out into the environment there are lots of microorganisms out there that can use this as a food substance or degrade it. So it’s highly biodegradable, it’s non-toxic, and it’s easy to make from natural substances,” said Judge.
“So it occurred to me that it might be a useful solvent in HPLC work – I reviewed the literature and as far as I could tell nobody had done that, even though it is a relatively simple idea.”
Working in the College’s pharmaceutical training lab, Judge, along with pharmaceutical manufacturing instructor Curtis Aab (who was able to use the study’s results as a part of his BSc thesis), began to use the EL – which, as well as being biodegradable, is now potentially cheaper to purchase – and were pleasantly surprised with the results.
“Well, it worked,” said Judge. “We found that we could replace more toxic solvents with this and we got very good results for some common pharmaceuticals we separated.”
Students in Judge’s Organic Chemistry course also had a chance to participate in this project by using some lab time to investigate the polarity of ethyl lactate based on solvatochromism, a technique that relates properties of a solvent to the colour imparted to a special dye dissolved in the solvent.
Judge and Aab’s resulting data was then published in the Canadian Journal of Chemistry, a prestigious publication which has helped put their applied research on members of the scientific community’s radar. Since its publication, Judge has been approached by research facilities in France and Brazil, along with a couple others, who wanted to know more about their findings.
Judge believes that applications for EL can also go well beyond making labs around the world more environmentally friendly. Indeed, there’s a great deal of other instances where EL could replace other harsher chemicals in many products that people use on a daily basis.
“Moving forward, we’ve established that we have some comfort with this particular chemical, and that there could be some interesting applications for it,” said Judge.
“For instance, from an applied research standpoint there could be some possible patents; I thought it could be interesting to look at other things you could do with this, even something as simple as windshield washer fluid.
When you buy windshield washer fluid it’s often methanol based for low temperature conditions, which again is not all that healthy for the environment. So, it certainly has some future practical applications.”